Porkrind Gulch

📅 Published on December 14, 2020

“Porkrind Gulch”

Written by Nick Carlson
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

ESTIMATED READING TIME — 22 minutes

Rating: 10.00/10. From 2 votes.
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The lore behind Porkrind Gulch is as old and dusty as the desert it sits in.

A relic from the Old West, Porkrind Gulch’s economy revolved around, as the name implies, porcine products. Anything swine had to offer, from the meat to the hooves to even the whole head for more daring types…it all came from that little settlement. As long as folks had their senses of taste about them, Porkrind Gulch would continue to thrive.

Until the power plant moved in.

The cancer rate in the little town quadrupled. The pigs sickened and literally rotted alive to the bone as they stood. Even the neighboring river dried up. The remaining townsfolk struggled to stay afloat, but the looming scourge of progress proved too much for them. One day, a census taker came around and found that the entire settlement had been abandoned. Empty wagons sat on the sides of the dirt roads. Half-starved horses remained tethered in their stables. Even some remnants of their last breakfasts remained on dinner tables, as if they’d always meant to come back and finish it off.

The subsequent media campaigns were ruthless, and within the year the power plant had been decommissioned. Now the two complexes stand in silent opposition to each other, bitter and haunting, rueing the others’ shadow.

Amid all the hubbub, no one ever found out, or even further questioned, where all the townspeople had gone.

That’s where we were headed to.

As anthropology students, we had been waiting for this day since our first steps on campus. The opportunity to write our theses presented us with unbound creative freedom, and we were astounded to learn there had been no formal publications regarding Porkrind Gulch. The academic explanation was that the town was a flash in the pan compared to the region’s more substantive happenings. Others claimed that the media had made the story about the power plant instead of the people, and once the smoke cleared, nothing more had been left over. More conspiratorial folks alleged the entire populace had been abducted by aliens, or subjected to military science experiments, the memory of them wiped away from all who knew à la Men in Black.

So for us, this wasn’t just about nailing our theses and nabbing that degree. It was about putting a nagging demon to rest.

It was myself, Haiden, and Thibault. With our relatively unimpressive credentials and resources, we might have only scratched the surface of what happened at Porkrind Gulch. But Thibault was our secret weapon. Being a preppy, snobby brat had its benefits, as it turned out; he was able to secure us with top-of-the-line equipment and gear thanks to his well-connected father. Hazmat suits, Geiger counters, soil testing kits, the whole shebang. Loading our new toys in the back of the van, we felt indestructible, ingenious…official.

That was before we headed out.

Porkrind Gulch sits in a river valley near the meeting point of Arizona and Colorado. The ecosystem around there is a radical transition between the arid deserts of the former, and the alpine conifer forests of the latter. The road winded up a sunbaked mountain before snaking through an expansive grove of pine trees, before making a rocky descent down to the valley. Looking out the right side of the van’s window, past trees and down a sheer drop, one could see a parade of decrepit rooftops below, a veritable graveyard of the town itself. Up the dried-out riverbed, looming over a hilltop, the obsidian-colored monolith of the power plant towered above the settlement.

“Look at it,” Haiden muttered. “Those bastards just moved in here and poisoned an innocent town. Typical corporate…”

“You know,” Thibault interjected, “no one ever proved the radiation even came from that plant. They never officially reported a containment breach or anything.”

Haiden scratched his chin in mock thoughtfulness. “Hmm, let me think…increased cancer rates, economic collapse, river stopped flowing…nope, totally doesn’t reek of environmental injustice.”

“Those articles were nothing but hitjobs,” said Thibault. “So concerned with the ‘scourge’ of nuclear power they forgot to ask any real questions.”

“Ah, did your father plant that one in you?” Haiden shot.

“Yeah, he also informed me you’re a prick.”

Up in the driver’s seat I rolled my eyes, not because they were fighting but because I knew the nastiness would be done and over with just as quickly as it started. At the end of the day, we were still friends since our freshman year. Those bonds run deeper than any of the occasional political flare-ups.

“…zero proof in the end that anything actually happened at all!” Thibault was concluding.

“Try saying that after today when your firstborn child has flippers,” said Haiden.

I slammed on the brakes a bit too hard. Haiden and Thibault jerked forward in their seats. “Dude, what was that for?” Haiden protested.

I gestured out the windshield. “We’re here.”

The tension in the car seemed to relax, then intensify tenfold. We almost felt imprisoned by the high rock walls and the tapering conifers. The sun was out in full, but that didn’t stop a chill from creeping through the van’s windows.

Thibault unpocketed his cell phone. “Of course there’s no service. Why would there be service?”

“These people lived very down-to-earth lives,” Haiden commented, rummaging in the space behind his seat. “There was never a need for cell phones.”

“I imagine you’d have liked to join them,” said Thibault.

“Reject tradition. Anprim forever,” Haiden quipped.

Thibault smirked and rolled his eyes. He went to open the van door.

“Whoa!” Haiden shouted. “You’re really just gonna step outside into what’s basically a toxic waste dump?”

Thibault frowned but he retracted his arm. Haiden grabbed what he’d been looking for in the back, one of the Geiger counters. “I mean, you brought all this stuff, we might as well use it, right?”

I regarded the Geiger counter, a metallic brick adorned with buttons and a display screen, sporting a microphone-like attachment called a “sniffer.” “Can’t hurt to at least try it out,” I agreed.

Haiden switched it on and opened up the sniffer. We waited, subconsciously holding our breaths. The device beeped once, then again after a five second delay. “0.03,” Haiden reported. “That’s about typical for background radiation…could you crack open the window please?”

I unlocked the windows and rolled down Haiden’s. Tentatively, as if afraid something outside might grab it, he stuck the sniffer up to the crack. The unreleased breath in my lungs seemed to ache.

“0.09,” he muttered. “Three times higher…but that’s not really atypical.”

“So there’s no excess radiation here,” said Thibault, finally throwing the van door open. “That’s one mystery solved. I can see my thesis now: ‘Why Haiden Was Wrong.’”

“Let’s see what we find once we actually, you know, get to the town,” Haiden said darkly, but we all had exited the van at that point.

Lugging our gear out of the trunk, we locked up the van and set off through the forest. We had to watch our step; the ground was rocky and the soil was loose with sand. One wrong step and we’d roll and ankle and tumble downhill unless we collided with a tree first. The gear was heavy and threw us off-balance; descending the subtle slope required an exercise of precision and precaution.

Eventually we made it to the bottom of a shallow ravine, a dried tributary of the main river. The ground here was mercifully flat, and we embarked forward in relative silence. Finally the trees thinned out, and we came across our first homestead: a derelict wooden structure nestled a few feet from the shoreline. A rusty metal pipe coated with lichen ran from the riverbed to underneath the crawlspace.

“Wow. Take a look, boys,” I said. “I don’t know about you, but personally this is my first ghost town.”

We stood in a bizarre state of awkward reverence, taking in the empty house before us.

Haiden dropped his gear bag and brandished the Geiger counter again. He passed it over the pipe. The beeping went off again, staccato and rhythmic, like some robotic cicada. “Oh – oh shit,” Haiden yelped, backing away. “0.48. That’s practically uranium levels. There’s radiation here after all.”

My heart seemed to grow spikes in my chest. “Should we break out the suits?”

“Uh, yeah,” said Haiden, an edge in his voice. “Unless you want to end up with three kinds of lymphoma?”

I scowled at him, but I unpacked the duffel bag and doled out three compressed plastic bags. We tore them open and donned the suits, snow-white and airtight with transparent visors on their faces.

“I feel like a stumbling stiff,” Thibault growled, straining to turn his head in the suit.

“Rather be stiff than be ridden with tumors,” Haiden grimaced. “Because, you know, there is radiation here after all. Let’s go.” We departed the creek bed and trudged past the house. We passed other abandoned houses, neither more impressive or suspect than the first. The beaten path below us became more and more level. Haiden’s Geiger counter went off again; he quickly capped the sniffer. “We’ll be alright,” he muttered.

The spaces between the houses tightened, and before we knew it we were treading the cracked remnants of a main road. The road stretched onward for a quarter-mile, terminating at an ominous rock face. Dead structures flanked its sides; the open spaces behind them, once clear-cut for use as pastures for the swine, had now wildly overgrown.

There was no birdsong. Not even the rustling of pine needles from a welcome breeze. The only sound was the oceanic rush of blood in my ears.

A wave of hushed realization passed through us…we were in the middle of Porkrind Gulch. Pioneers to the last stronghold of an old legend.

We looked around. “So…” I finally said. “What’s the plan going forward?”

Thibault pulled a loaded binder out of a duffel bag and opened it up to its first page. “First we should make base camp…a central hub of operations to set up our testing kits and whatnot.” He turned to a large, boxy building behind him that could have been a general store. “There, I guess?”

The silence that followed was enough for him; he gathered up the bags and hoisted them through the empty doorway. Reluctantly we followed. The interior of the building was creaky and dark, and although our suits were airtight, I could almost sense shadowy musk in the air, as if the foundation itself exuded repressed, tortured memories.

Rows of skeletal shelves and tables were packed with crusty, moldy jars and boxes. Treading carefully, Thibault set a bulky plastic case on a table and began unloading our equipment: lamps, kits, maps, flashlights, excavating tools. Haiden uncapped the sniffer and scanned our surroundings. The robotic beeping sounded off.

“0.48 again,” Haiden reported. “That’s interesting. I’d expected the levels to be higher the closer to the plant we got…”

“That is interesting,” said Thibault. “Maybe it came from another source?”

“Who or what could have pumped this whole town full of ionized-uranium grade radiation besides a power plant?” Haiden snapped. “You’re just making excuses.”

My thesis is actually going to circumvent the media narrative,” Thibault proclaimed. “I want to find out what actually happened in Porkrind Gulch, not just parrot what’s already been said.”

While they bickered, I wandered off down an aisle, scanning the shelves with my light. Their contents were clearly very old, but despite the rustiness everything appeared whole, unbroken. I’d assumed that whatever resulting chaos caused the entire town’s population to disappear would have shaken up some things…but it truly looked like everyone had simply vanished, leaving everything as it was, as it would be.

I lowered my light to the ground, looking for shards. A black cockroach scuttled past my boot and I jumped backward, colliding with the shelf behind me. In that split-second I already imagined the chaos that would unfold – a domino effect of collapsing shelves and shattering foodstuffs –

I merely bounced off the shelf, my own momentum pushing me back to a stand. Rubbing my aching elbow, I again directed my light to the floor. The shelf felt very solid, as if it had been deadbolted to the floor. It hadn’t even shuddered from my force. I scoured the bottom of the shelves for any sign of glue or screws. There was nothing of the sort.

“You alright, man?” Haiden called out.

“Fine,” I replied, going back to join them. In the back of my mind I reflected on just how inert the shelf had been, as if it had been jutting out of the ground…or…

“Dammit,” Haiden muttered, raising the Geiger counter above his head as if searching for a cellular signal. The beeping was constant and rhythmic. “This thing’s gotta be busted or something…”

“What makes you say that?” I inquired, almost forgetting about the shelf.

“I’ve fine-tuned this thing to the nth degree, but every single material I pass it over continues to register at 0.48,” Haiden growled. “Wood…metal…these materials shouldn’t absorb radiation at the exact same levels…”

At the far end of the table, Thibault looked up from a soil testing kit. “There’s a control on the side of those things. Check it out there.”

Haiden unclipped the sniffer and passed it over the side of the Geiger counter, which sported a weakly radioactive strip for testing out the sniffer’s integrity. The beeping slowed down. “0.27?” Haiden said.

“That sounds right,” Thibault confirmed.

Frowning, Haiden combed the walls, passing the device over every available surface. The beeping jumped back up to the tempo I took for 0.48. “This thing’s gotta be faulty,” said Haiden. “Just doesn’t make sense…”

Thibault shrugged. “How mysterious. Perhaps there’s more to this town than what we’d already assumed.”

I expected Haiden to retort, but his shoulders merely slumped with exasperation. “Why don’t you put those soil testing kits to use, Thibault. I’m gonna head out and explore the other buildings.” As he passed me up he silently beckoned me to follow. Getting the hint, I walked with him back out to the sunlit road.

“Jackass,” Haiden spat when we were out of earshot. “Always has to get the last word in, doesn’t he?”

I sighed. “I think he’s just insecure. To be fair though it’s not like any of us knows what really happened yet…”

He wheeled towards me. “So you’re taking his side?”

“No,” I said. “I don’t know what to think right now. Something about this place isn’t right.” Haiden looked at me to say something, but I cut him off. “I mean, besides the obvious. What you said about the radiation levels not changing, and something I found in the building…this isn’t your ordinary ruined ghost town, if that even makes a lick of sense.”

Haiden grimaced, but didn’t say anything more. We walked up the main road, observing the buildings on our sides. I got the uneasy feeling that we wouldn’t find anything more helpful anywhere else we looked. Porkrind Gulch wasn’t just dead…it was devoid.

“There is one thing we can try and find out though,” Haiden mentioned. “The river. I do know that when the plant moved in, the river dried up. If anything we can pin that on them.”

I stared ahead, past the remaining buildings and up a steep mountainside where the distant power plant reared its industrial head. “Anything to try and add more factors to this equation,” I agreed.

It only took a few minutes to cross from one end of town to the next. The frame of a watermill wheel marked the transition. The dried riverbed before us was stony and precarious, striated with erosion and littered with driftwood. Haiden peered upriver. “This used to be a pristine natural resource,” he muttered, “but something definitely happened to it, and it has to do with the plant. It just has to.”

We slid down the slope into the riverbed and headed upwards. The ground below us was smooth and easy to navigate. The walls above were a miniature canyon with multicolored levels of sediment, like a layer cake. Progress up the river was slow, but I didn’t care how long we’d be gone. Truth be told, Thibault had been starting to annoy me too.

After about a mile we rounded a bend and came to a dead stop in unison.

“Oh,” I gasped.

Before us, blocking our progress, was a giant, gnarled dam, constructed entirely out of logs and twisted pieces of deadwood. Trickles of water leaked past gaps in the wood and spilled onto the ground, rendering it a mud pit, but otherwise the structure held fast.

Haiden trembled next to me. “I knew it…they blocked up the river. They were slowly killing those people already and they just…”

Now I was starting to get annoyed at him. “Haiden…we need to investigate before we jump to conclusions. This still doesn’t add up.”

Haiden swept his hands over the dam. “There’s a dam here. They built it. The river dried. And the townspeople suffered for it. It adds up fine.

“Really? Then how do you know the power plant people built it?”

“Because…” Haiden stammered, hesitating. “…Because the plant is right there? They dammed up the river for their own purposes! Hydroelectric power? A cooling pond?”

“You’re just guessing based on circumstantial evidence,” I replied. “You may be right, I’m not flat-out saying you aren’t…but we definitely need to find some more evidence. We’re scientists after all.”

“Not yet, at any rate,” Haiden grumbled.

I rolled my eyes and gestured around. “Think about it…some big industrial giant like them is going to doubtlessly leave behind artifacts. Screws, lugnuts, rubbish…this is just like all those exercises we did with Dr. Halligan. Inductive reasoning…guess what happened based on what we find.”

“Sure. Whatever.” But Haiden was already at the base of the dam, running a trowel through the mud. I backed up and took in a full picture of the dam. Aside from the larger scale, it appeared no different than the dams I used to build in the neighborhood creek as a kid. “If they truly wanted to build an effective dam, I would have expected them to use more reliable materials,” I said to myself.

“Wish we’d brought a metal detector,” Haiden griped, sweeping the trowel in angry strokes. “Then we’d really know if they were here…”

A thought came to me. “Haiden, hit the area with your Geiger counter.”

Haiden straightened up and unclipped the Geiger counter from his waistline, scanning the air, the rocks, the dam. For once, the slow, rhythmic beeping unsettled me more than the alternate.

“I don’t get it!” Haiden cried. “0.09! There’s just background radiation here! I thought the closer we’d gotten to the plant the greater it would all be!”

I looked up at the plant, which seemed to survey us like a judgmental behemoth. “I have to say it, Haiden…there’s no evidence that substantial amounts of radiation originated from the plant.”

“The entire town was practically glowing with radiation!” he retorted.

“Yes…the entire town,” I reminded him. “Just the town.”

“Come off it!” said Haiden. “Are you telling me the town itself just decided to become radioactive?”

I opened my mouth to respond, but the words simply wouldn’t organize in my mind. How could an entire town start bursting with the same reading of radiation? The only explanation that came to mind was “solar flares.” But you couldn’t pay me to say that out loud to Haiden.

“I have another idea,” he stated, working his way up the side of the riverbed. “Maybe the water got contaminated, so they dammed it up to try for damage control.”

I groaned, reminding myself that at least it was slightly more plausible an explanation than solar flares. I followed him up out of the riverbed and around to where the water was dammed up. The pool behind the dam was deep and stained with mud, slow and bitter with the urge to burst forth.

Haiden walked out onto an outcropping boulder and laid out on his stomach, lowering the Geiger counter to the water’s surface. “Can’t reach…you’re taller than me, you try it,” he said, standing up and thrusting the device at me. I took it from him and splayed out, extending my arm, trying to scrape the water with the device…the beeping continued to sound off…I was almost there…

The ground below me shifted. I could feel my center of gravity begin to plummet. The surface of the water was growing closer to my face. “Shit!” I cried, locking my limbs to the boulder’s sides, trying to shimmy backwards to safety – and in my haste the Geiger counter slipped from my hand and disappeared with a dismal splash. Something grabbed the scruff of my hazmat suit and hauled me away; I sprang up and fell back onto Haiden. The boulder, halfway dislodged from its perch, collapsed entirely, and the water’s surface practically broke apart from its weight.

As we sat in stunned silence, there came the sounds of submerged structural groans. The gush of fresh water down below. A bulge formed in the dam – then a torrent exploded forth and the dam simply fell apart, lost in an unbound deluge of frothing, dirty water. The rushing and gushing noises sounded almost joyous, nature freed from the constructs of man at long last.

The riverbed filled shockingly fast. Haiden and I looked wordlessly at each other.

“…This certainly ought to shake things up,” I said.

Haiden nodded. “Millions of years of natural processes replicated in two seconds by two idiots.”

I nodded back. “Yeah, uh…let’s, like, go back and make sure we didn’t wash away Porkrind Gulch…”

He nodded once more, but it was a good five minutes before we finally found our wits and managed to start walking.

* * * * * *

By the time we got back to town, the watermill wheel was spinning like a ceiling fan. The area had erupted with birdsong, attracted by the sudden return of the river. And the residents of Porkrind Gulch had returned.

It was like watching a painting come to life. Throngs of wizened old folks as dusty and worn as the buildings they milled around, blinking from the sunlight and conversing in hushed, confused tones. There were even pigs in the streets. The sight of the newly freed river felt like an insignificant memory compared to what was transpiring before us.

“Everyone…everyone!” Haiden tried shouting. “Listen to me! You can’t be here! This area is radioactive! We…” But the townsfolk either didn’t listen or didn’t care. Before our eyes, the befuddled expressions slowly disappeared and the people set off down the road, entering buildings, or simply stood in place, waving cheerfully to passersby.

“What the fuck,” Haiden whispered.

“Where have they been?” I wondered out loud. “Were they making camp in the woods or something?”

“Someone would have found them by then,” said Haiden. “Come on…we have to figure this out. Our field is the study of people, after all…”

I silently agreed as we entered the town together. The thought of my thesis was long behind me. The desire to close Porkrind Gulch’s case had superseded anything academic.

“Oh, I just remembered,” I said. “I managed to catch a glimpse of the reading on the Geiger counter before I dropped it…”

Haiden faced me. “And?”

I gave him a somber look. “It was low. Like…background radiation low.”

“Son of a bitch,” he hissed, smacking his forehead with his knuckle. “Then what? And why?? Maybe you just didn’t get it low enough…”

I doubted it. I remembered clearly seeing the needle swing down. But Haiden was on a warpath. “We can grab another Geiger counter from Thibault. …Speaking of which, where is he?” Haiden scanned the crowds but no one in a hazmat suit stood out. “Is he still at base camp?”

We located the general store and found to our mixed surprise Thibault hadn’t moved from the table. He seemed absorbed in the soil testing kits, comparing samples in test tubes to color-coded strips of paper.

“Thibault!” Haiden said sharply. “Thibault!”

Thibault perked up as if seeing us for the first time. “Hey, guys…where’ve you all been?”

“We kinda busted up a dam and brought the river back,” I said sheepishly.

Thibault stared at us. “Sounds like fun.”

“Did you see all those people out there?” Haiden demanded. “Where did they come from? Did you see anything at all??”

A glazed look crossed Thibault’s face behind his visor. “I didn’t see anything. I was in here with the samples.”

Haiden shook his head and muttered something that sounded like “useless.” I motioned at the soil samples. “Anything interesting in the soil though?”

Thibault paused, as if trying to translate what I’d said from another language. “I found high levels of potassium and a pH of 8.”

“Potassium? Why’s that?” I questioned.

Thibault looked at me again. “The charts say that’s indicative of the presence of wood ash.”

Haiden’s brow furrowed. “So…something burned here?”

Thibault nodded. “I collected samples from all over the area. Everywhere, it read the same.”

“We didn’t see any evidence of fire damage though,” I remarked.

Thibault shrugged. “Wow, what a mystery.”

Haiden made an aggressive move forward. “Well if you’re done fiddling with the dirt, you can come help us ask around and find out what the fuck just happened around here, considering you didn’t see anything yourself.”

“I’d rather not, I pulled a muscle and my leg is seizing up,” he said quickly. “Just go on ahead and let me fiddle with my dirt.”

Haiden seethed, but he turned and stormed out of the store. I shot Thibault a look and followed him out.

“What is wrong with him!” Haiden barked, not bothering to keep his voice down. “It’s like he’s being deliberately obtuse! Remind me again why we let him come with us!”

“I agree, he’s really pissing me off too,” I said. “But we’re not obliged to tell him anything that we find if he’s not willing to help.”

“Right,” Haiden asserted. We gazed around at the townsfolk, who were still acting as if it was just another day for them. “Seriously…what and why. What, and why.”

Across the street, nestled in a shadowy deck, was an old man in a rocking chair. He stared at us with a surprisingly alert expression, counter to the oblivious people meandering about. Our eyes locked. “Haiden,” I muttered, trying to pretend as if I wasn’t talking about the old man. “We could try and interview that old guy over there. He looks like he actually, you know, sees us…”

Haiden’s gaze flitted across where he was sitting. “It’s worth a shot…stay on your toes though. People who mysteriously reappear after decades don’t really sit well with me, you know?” Grabbing an equipment bag we crossed the street, picking our way through the townsfolk, and arrived next to the old man, who looked up at us with a wide smile. “Well howdy!” he wheezed. “Why y’all dressed like that?”

Haiden twitched again. “Sir, this place is radioactive, we have to -”

I elbowed him and he shut up. “Sorry, sir…it’s for safety reasons. We just want to ask you a few questions. We’re trying to collect demographic information.”

The old man’s eyes narrowed. “You with the government?”

“The government? Oh hell no, fuck that,” I hazarded. “We don’t associate with those swamp creatures.”

The old man cackled. “Good man! Sure, I’ll talk to ya. Tell you whatever it is ya need to know.”

Haiden procured an audio recorder from the bag and ran it. “Could you tell us your name?”

“Harold McCreary,” he said.

“What was…er, what is your job at Porkrind Gulch?”

“I’m a pig farmer! Just like everyone and their mother!” he laughed.

“Of course,” said Haiden. “From what I gathered that’s been, uh…disrupted as of late. Can you tell us about that?”

“Course I can!” Harold shouted. “Damn plant moved in and everything started goin’ wrong! I’m tellin’ ya, that’s what I’m sayin’! Ya know what I’m sayin’? Huh?”

Haiden and I looked at each other. I turned to address the old man. “So when the plant moved in…bad things started happening. Cancer and dead livestock and the river drying up, correct?”

“Correct!” he confirmed.

“Well, sir,” I chanced, “with all due respect…our investigation of the town has brought up some rather startling evidence. In short, we…well, I, at least…don’t believe the power plant had anything to do with your troubles.”

Harold scowled. “Course it did! Why else would everything turn sour and flip on its head!”

“We’ve been here a long time collecting data,” said Haiden reluctantly. “And for the moment, the data shows that whatever’s going on here…probably didn’t originate from the plant.”

“Our data shows the radiation is contained solely to the town,” I explained, pulling another Geiger counter from the gear bag. I powered it on and it immediately crackled at a rate of 0.48. “This device detects radiation,” I said, passing it over everything in sight: the walls, the chair, Harold. Only when the sniffer passed over my own suit did the beeping briefly subside. “All the readings are consistent here,” I concluded. “Nowhere else around is the radiation so strong.”

It was abundantly clear from Harold’s expression that he didn’t comprehend or care what I was saying. “You analyst types work with words the way ladies work with needle ‘n’ threads,” he grumbled. “I suggest you pack your shit up and get outta here.”

“One more thing,” said Haiden hastily. “Where did you all go for all those years?”

“What are you sayin’!” Harold growled. “We’ve always been here! You people with your machines and your fancy talk – ugh! Just leave me alone! Leave us alone!”

“Much obliged,” said Haiden irritably, packing up the gear. “Come on, let’s go.”

“And stay out!” Harold spat, brandishing a fist as we departed. “Back with your mommies in your cozy little holes!”

Once we were out of his range, yet still able to see our surroundings, we stopped and stared at each other. “You saw what I saw, right?” I said.

Haiden nodded slowly, his eyes wide. “Harold McCreary was giving off the same exact readings. 0.48.”

Everything here is radioactive,” I said. “And I’m sure if we scoped anyone else they’d read 0.48 too.”

“What is it then? What does it mean?” Haiden ventured.

“They came back with the water…” My mind seemed to ache from the mixture of comprehension and impending horror. I thought back to the shelf in the store, how it seemed like a part of the ground. “All the same readings…the town…the objects…the people…there’s no other way to say it. They’re all the same thing. The same…material, or something. Something that reactivates with water…”

“Like…mold?” Haiden said with alarm.

“A fungus,” I whispered. “It’s…everything here is…alive…

“We have to find Thibault,” Haiden said, a tremble in his voice. “We have to get out of here. Now.” He rushed over to the general store and disappeared through the doorway. I went to follow him, but something shiny caught my eye in the dirt. A cold, dreadful curiosity gripped me and I walked over to investigate.

It was one of the test tubes from the soil kits. It had been crushed underfoot, a collection of loose dirt spilling from its torqued form. And something like dried blood freckled the ground around it.

My heart sinking, I looked up at the building it was in front of. Its door was ajar.

Looking around, I inched over to the door and pushed it open. I braced myself for whatever horrible sight sat beyond.

It took a moment to adjust to the low light. But a moment was all I needed to deduce what had happened.

Sprawled across the ground in the shaft of sunlight was a torn, bloodied white hazmat suit. Hyphae, soft fungal roots, trailed from the suit like a frozen waterfall, merging smoothly with the wooden floor. They were pointing to the building next to it.

The general store.

“Thibault,” I whispered.

I recoiled from the doorway and sprinted to the general store. I barely noticed the townsfolk were now all eyeing me, as if they knew I had known. I didn’t care. My heart was a jackhammer in my chest as I burst into the store and peered around wildly for Haiden. “Haiden! Haiden, goddammit! We have to get out of here! Now! Right now!”

Haiden was at the table where the testing kits were. Thibault was nowhere in sight. He was staring in bewilderment at the chair Thibault had been sitting in. As I approached, I saw the seat of the chair was caked in the same hyphae from the building over. “Haiden,” I urged, grabbing his arm. “We have to leave! Thibault is gone! That wasn’t him we were talking to before!”

“What?” Haiden yelped.

“I’ll explain later – let’s just go! Now!” But I halted as I turned to leave. Thibault was standing stiffly in the doorway, staring at us. Haiden, perplexed, wandered towards him.

“Are we leaving already?” the Thibault-thing simpered.

“No!” I screamed.

In one fluid motion the Thibault-thing lashed out with clawed fingers and tore a hole in Haiden’s suit. Haiden barely had time to stumble backwards and shout before the Thibault-thing began to change. Its hazmat suit opened up like a frill and its jaw dislocated, opening a fissure from its skull to its stomach, and it belched out a cloud of black dust that engulfed Haiden entirely. Haiden coughed and gagged, writhing on the floor, convulsing as if being electrocuted…then before my eyes, miniature hyphae sprung out from his suit, attaching to the floor, splaying him down in a pose similar to a murder victim.

All that happened in less than ten seconds. The Thibault-thing turned to me, the tendrils of its suit pulsating like sea anemones. Then, emitting a deathly rattle, it rushed towards me.

Scared animal instinct took over and I bolted, dashing down an aisle, the creature’s rasping boring a hole through the back of my skull. I rounded the aisle and skirted along the side, to try and circle the creature and find my way to the exit. I felt something pepper the back of my suit – vomited spores yearning to find organic material. All it did was make me pick up the pace.

I vaulted over Haiden’s corpse, assimilating with the fungal floor, and exploded out the doorway into the sun. All around me, the townspeople had gathered like a pack of wolves, all in various states of transformation. I saw limbs where they shouldn’t have been. Faces and bodies opening up to reveal internal workings that were black and green and disgustingly inhuman. Even the pigs were transforming, their heads splitting open in quarters like banana peels. I tore through the mob, bouncing off bodies and nearly tripping over myself. I felt hands grab at me, bones and nails ripping at my suit. I screamed, hoping that spores hadn’t found their way through the holes and onto my skin…

Finally I found open space and barreled down the road, back up the path where we had come from barely a few hours earlier. How things had changed in those few hours…how they had gone sour, flipped on their heads…

All I perceived was adrenaline and spiking breath in my lungs. Nothing to suggest any foreign bodies had infected me…yet…

Numb to the sheer terror, I took one last look behind me.

Everyone had emerged to chase me. An entire town’s worth of fruiting bodies, scrambling over each other to get at me. One massive, writhing wall of contortion and mutation and primeval desire. And the noise…a giant, wet, collective hiss that reamed through me and nearly jellified my muscles. I have no shame in admitting I pissed myself right then and there. I didn’t care. I never looked back at Porkrind Gulch, and didn’t stop until I was back at the van.

The engine sputtered temporarily, and I finally emitted a scream, thinking the sounds of mechanical struggling were those of a fungal monster trying to break in. But the van started up with no more trouble, and I drove out of there, careful to navigate the winding road. The sharp odor of piss was my only companion the whole rest of the way.

* * * * * *

The drive back to civilization gave me ample time to think. It was all that I could do, to put off reflecting on Thibault and Haiden. That would come in time. Rationalizing and theorizing, meanwhile, was my first instinct, and I had to abide by it.

The power plant was to blame…to an extent. The fungus must have mutated horribly, and found a foothold in the town. Nothing to suggest it was intentional. Everyone was just trying to go to work, live their lives. No one had wanted it to happen.

The infection had spread. It was subtle and quick. Perhaps people hadn’t known what was even going on at first. They thought it was cancer…maybe it was cancer. Maybe some folks had rejected the spores’ effects and perished anyway, leaving the survivors to become hive-minded extensions of a super-parasite.

Someone had caught on. They’d tried damming up the river, to deprive the organism of its water. Then when that didn’t work, they tried burning it all down. One last effort to extinguish the scourge, and the entire town, before it could persist and survive on its own.

It didn’t work either. It merely grew back, condemning the ashen remains to the ground, sitting dormant and dehydrated until the water would return.

My thesis on Porkrind Gulch was not well-received. It didn’t help that the murder investigations had discolored my reputation on campus. Of course no one could prove I had done away with Haiden or Thibault myself, and the officials settled with “environmental causes.” I guess they’re right, in a way. A way they’ll never accept, however, unless they go down there themselves. I don’t recommend it.

As far as I know, Porkrind Gulch still thrives, its impostor townsfolk still wandering aimlessly, pulling a guise of business and normalcy, waiting for another unsuspecting source of nutrients to stumble through. I’d call it a sad existence, but that just wouldn’t be reality. Reality, as it turned out, did not care for our presumptions. And it never will.

I guess accepting that would be the first steps toward healing…whatever that might entail.

Rating: 10.00/10. From 2 votes.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Written by Nick Carlson
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Nick Carlson


Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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